Saturday, October 11, 2014

Europe's secret trade deal


One of those moments when our European Parliament members are actually crucial to the future of both the UK and wider Europe...




"A shady deal is being negotiated in secret right now. It could permanently privatise the Britsih public health system and allow big corporations to sue European governments if they don't like our laws (such as simply raising the minimum wage.)
It's called the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, or TTIP for short, and this EU-US trade deal is one of the most dangerous ever written.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have the power to scupper it. But first they need to feel the pressure from the people they represent - us, the public.
Can you add your name to a huge EU-wide petition and help convince them? Click here to sign or just read more."




Friday, October 3, 2014

"Poor doors" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

When I was a kid and just starting to try and understand the adult world I used to hear my parents and other grown-ups make what seemed to be jokes about the "tradesman's entrance." 
I eventually learned that these words were a kind of sexual slang for the anus but were also more literally "the side or back door of a large house, used, especially in the past, by people delivering goods who were not allowed to use the main entrance at the front of the house."
Now though, another somewhat similar kind of entry/exit is becoming common in new apartment blocks in those two western-world trendsetters cities of New York and London. Tenants in these buildings must use two different entrances, depending on whether they live in the cheaper flats or the expensive part of the accommodation.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio has stated his opposition to what some of the city's residents have called "poor doors" although his administration has approved a number that have already been planned and built. 

Arguing in their favour, David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at US property developers Toll Brothers was reported as saying "You have politicians saying how horrible these back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood." 

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson is refusing to ban poor doors despite an increasing number of developments in the English capital having so-called "alternative access." Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are also being separated in some residential complexes. 

One argument has been that doing so keeps construction costs down but in New York there are financial incentives to include "affordable" flats in the same location as luxury ones. So it is now apparent that architects are too often entirely at the mercy of owners and investors and will do whatever is necessary to keep them happy.

In central London there is another phenomenon that is becoming more publicised. 

Outside several housing buildings and supermarkets, sharp metal spikes have been put into the concrete in the corner of the doorway outside, clearly as a way of preventing homeless people from sleeping there. One charity says this has actually been a common practice for over a decade and I recently saw a photo of a progressive activist pouring liquid concrete to cover over these metal studs.

It's no coincidence that at this very same time the UK Border Agency has recently admitted that it is working on plans for fast-track passport lanes for travellers of "high economic value" (ie. rich) at British airports. 

Supposedly this is needed so that they do not have to wait in the queue like the rest of the species. 

I'm not pretending that there are not more significant problems in our world at this moment but poor doors, anti-homeless studs and immigration lines that divide people according to the size of their bank balance are all symptoms of a sickness, a backward habit of mind.

After all the public talk is done and the justifications have been made, these things end up encouraging lesser treatment of those without the good fortune to be wealthy. 

When the smaller details of life of are changed - doors, queues, public places - it creates less public resistance to the idea of changing bigger details. 

In this way, schools or health services can be separated along class lines, without us really noticing.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2014.]


Saturday, September 27, 2014

International meeting of expats to discuss Catalan independence question






































"An event is to be held on October 1 at 7:30pm at the Fabrica Moritz in Barcelona: a discussion among the expat community about the independence of Catalonia and how it affects [expats] in particular, followed by a networking session to relax and chat more informally.

The panel discussion will include Maarten de Jongh, Corporate Finance Advisor, originally from the Netherlands; Krys Schreiber, International Press and Communication Consultant, originally from Germany; Martha Moreo, Business Administration and Musician, originally from Argentina of Italian origin and it will be chaired by Liz Castro, editor of What’s up with Catalonia?, originally from the United States.

There is a $5 cover charge at the door which includes two beers, and covers the expenses of the hall.

See flyer poster above for more general information."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Homeless in Barcelona

Matthew Tree

Matthew Tree's beautiful, simple opinion piece in El Punt Avui on the weekend...

"Yolanda Aguila lives on the street - on my street, in fact. I started talking to her a week ago. (For seventeen weeks she has had no home).
She did live in an apartment with other people until the council made an inspection and the owner - instead of doing the renovations necessary to get a new certificate of habitability - made them all move out.
Therefore, Yolanda is newly homeless. In fact, when you talk to her, if not for the fact that the conversation takes place on a piece of sidewalk occupied by her and her only suitcase, you would not guess that she has no fixed address.
Despite a difficult past (taking antidepressants) and poor health (suffering from fibromyalgia and calcification of the bones) she is doing (very) well, mentally.
She is 45 years old, likes historical novels (now for example, she is reading Victus by Albert Sánchez Piñol) and eats regularly, thanks to a bar that gives her unsold sandwiches every day.
Yolanda tries to give some of this food to other people who are living in her area without a roof over their heads, but most of them do not want to eat, only to drink, in an attempt, she guesses, to kill themselves slowly.
She has tried every charity, but most just offer a meal or clothes when what you really need back, above anything else, is a room to rent.
Life on the street for her is especially uncomfortable because she suffers from diseases. The last time I saw her, she was crying in frustration.

How is it that this woman is on the street when it costs so little to get her off the street? 


If Alícia Sánchez-Camacho [the leader of the Catalan branch of Spain's ruling Popular Party] - who says that we must confront the real problems of the people - sold one of her black crocodile skin handbags, there would be enough money to get a room for Yolanda Aguila.

Anyway, if anyone has any suggestions please contact me through El Pinu/Avui at mtree@elpunt.info
"

Sunday, September 21, 2014

W.H.O. targets a trans fat-free Europe

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for a complete ban on trans fats throughout Europe as part of a new action plan on diet and health.

More at source here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Season of free Australian films in Barcelona

This week is the start of an Australian Film Season, hosted by Barcelona's RMIT in conjunction with ASBA (the Australia Spain Business Association.)

The season comprises 10 films. There will be one film each week, on Thursdays at 7.30pm, with the exception of 2 October.

The premiere will take place this Thursday 18 September at 7.30pm, and will be attended by the Australian Ambassador to Spain, Ms Jane Hardy. The screening will be followed by a cocktail reception.

The screenings will take place at RMIT in C/Minerva 2. This street runs off Diagonal and is very close to Passeig de Gracia.

Admission is free to all screenings.

The list of films and their dates appear below...

18/9 Priscilla Queen of the Desert 
25/9 Picnic at Hanging Rock 
9/10 The Year of Living Dangerously 
16/10 Lantana 
23/10 Rabbit Proof Fence 
30/10 Gallipoli 
6/11 The Lighthorsemen 
13/11 Wake in Fright 
20/11 Breaker Morant 
27/11 Animal Kingdom

Personally, I highly recommend Lantana. Though I haven't seen Rabbit Proof Fence or Wake in Fright, they are many other people's favourites.












Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, visits Jerusalem's Wailing Wall

The trip was made [last weekend] by a group made up of Spanish political parties, Izquierda Plural (with six Euro deputies) and Podemos (with five).

They visited Ramala after Israel had denied the delegation entry to Gaza two days earlier.

The delegation held meetings with Palestinian leaders, among them the Prime Minister of the United Nation Transitional Government, Rami Hamdala, and with the top Palestinian diplomat, Raid al Malki.

The group also met with Israeli pacifists and left-wing groups such as Rabbis for Democracy, and they visited the old city of Jerusalem.

More from original source here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Legislating liberties" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Photo: Javier at [sic]
While we were (hopefully) enjoying sun and slumber over the summer it was easy to miss some disturbing international developments (or should I instead call these events disturbing steps back towards some of the worst aspects of the previous century.)

In a ruling barely even mentioned by most mainstream media (and opposed by the Obama White House) the Supreme Court of the USA declared that "companies whose shares are held by a small number of shareholders can refuse to provide health care plans that include contraception coverage, if they have a religious objection." 

This decision is important largely because it logically means that corporations – not only individuals – have the right to religious freedom. It also creates situations where they can legally exercise this freedom at the expense of those who do not own business, ie. working people. 

Meanwhile the same USA has re-formed it´s diplomatic alliance with previously "evil" Iran, who are also working hard to undermine women´s rights.

There, the national leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is heading the charge to put a ban on vasectomies and other birth control surgeries. 

His reasoning is that the population of his country needs to be doubled so that "national identity" becomes stronger. 
Proposed laws have already been approved that would throw doctors who perform these kinds of operations into prison for five years.

Closer to our part of the world, it is apparent that intolerance against many minority groups (including Jews and Gypsies) is on the rise across Europe. 

The latest example of this trend is a recent European Court of Human Right's verdict that upheld a French law banning the wearing of the [Muslim] full-face veil in public.
 
The vague use of "security concerns" as the rationale for the ban makes it clear that the issue is still being used (particularly by right-wing politicians) as a distraction from political failings.
 
My understanding is that Muslim women are happy to show their face for an identity or passport check, provided this is done with another women only in a private area. This is a very simple request to accommodate as a matter of routine.

Personally, I just don’t accept that having a law against covering your face means that people will not do it when they are about to commit a crime, as those advocates of the new law argue.
 
Let’s say I’m going to rob a bank. (I may have to actually do this if I don't get a pay rise soon.) Do I decide to not cover my face to avoid my identity being recognized through the security cameras simply because there is a law against it? 

No, instead a robber will simply break two laws instead of just one because they believe they will not get caught anyway.

To my mind, there’s way too much public debate about clothing and not enough discussion of the other factors involved in religion and discrimination.

To me, the hijab/niqab/face covering debate is a trivialisation of the bigger issues. Surely, what someone wears is largely a personal choice, except where women are ‘forced to cover-up’ to varying degrees.

Some Muslim women are in fact much more interested in improving their everyday rights than they are about how much they cover or don’t cover of their heads and faces.

The veil gets media and public attention because it is such an easily visible thing in our fashion-conscious times, as opposed to the more dramatic health and quality of life threatening problems such female genital mutilation (which is also still practised by some non-Muslims, such as Coptic Christians in Egypt as well.)

Clearly, a law should exist to protect women who want to defy those who want to force them to dress against their will. 

Equally though, another law should exist allowing women to cover as much as they like, whether any of us thinks that hiding a face is a sad reflection of a culture or not.
 
The result of any banning of the veil is very likely to be that more Muslim women are kept at home by their controllers: extremist, fundamentalist men. 

This leads very rapidly to a situation where a law that is supposed to make Islamic women somehow more free actually has the opposite effect.

Sometimes I think that social progress is just a thing of the past.


[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Sept. 2014.]

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Down syndrome, Dawkins and doubt


Even the greatest have intellectual blind spots.
 
I regard Richard Dawkins as having one of the most brilliant minds of our time but I think he was wrong to say what he did this week. He has given a kind of apology/clarification but I'm still unconvinced about his key point, which was...


"if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare."


I've spent time around teenagers with Down syndrome and they certainly did not strike me as being especially unhappy, and often seemed quite a bit more happy than many others their age.

I worked with some teenage students with the syndrome during my teacher training in the 1990's and have very fond memories of two kids in particular. Jason was a big, quiet guy who loved soccer and his brother. His favoured response to most questions was "Nuh. Nothin'..."
 
Mary was a lively and flirtatious girl who had a huge crush on Australian game-show host Larry Emdur. She always insisted that I sit next to her because she believed I looked like her idol.

Here is one woman's beautiful and moving account of the joys of having a brother with Down's syndrome.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Australian review of "Outlaws" by Cercas




<i>Outlaws</i>, by Javier Cercas.

In the Australian (mainstream) media this month was this review of Javier Cercas’ latest novel, Outlaws.


"Cercas captures Spain in transition from the tyranny of Franco to democracy, through an intense exploration of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Abandoned in austerity Spain: no job, no benefits"


"Read the news and it’s all upbeat about Spain.

The Spanish economy grew 0.6 percent in the second quarter, the fastest rate since 2007, before the country slipped into recession. That’s the fourth consecutive quarter of growth.


And Spain’s unemployment rate has fallen to a two-year low – of 24.5% in the second quarter.

Of course at a quarter of the working population, unemployment remains very high, second highest in Europe in fact. And more than half of all young people (15-24 year olds) have no employment.

But the trend is positive, the Popular Party government of Mariano Rajoy argues: austerity is working.

But other, recently issued figures show a different picture..."



Read more from source here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Catalans in Queensland










A detailed, fascinating look at the their 20th century history in the north-eastern state of Australia, via Cristina Poyatos Matas.

(Link also here.)

[Thanks to Ferran Fabrellas.]

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Video: "Gaudí, Barcleona's phantom metro station"

[videos.lavanguardia.com]
This week the Metro of Barcelona celebrated it's 90th anniversary by allowing filming in one of the most unique stations - one that has never had a train stop in it.

Video here.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Intransit


InTransit is a site that has English translations of opinion pieces that have appeared in the Catalan-speaking press or Spanish press.

It's worth reading or even subscribing to their e-newsletter.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Video: "A Miniature Look at the Catalan Province of Girona"

From the excellent Homage to BCN a great 3 minute visual treat by freelance filmaker Pau García Laita focusing on different locations around the area of Girona - sometimes unjustly neglected by tourists who only spend time in the capital.

Friday, July 4, 2014

"I don't think,...therefore I am" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine


















"Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars."

This is "probably a true statement" according to one in four people across the entire planet, a recent global survey has found.

It would be easy to dismiss these kinds of stereotyped opinions as the ill-informed ignorance of a small minority, except that nearby events of the last few months show that discrimination and prejudice of many kinds are seemingly much deeper and more widespread than we might like to think.

At a Brussels Jewish museum in May a lone gunman shot dead three people, including two Israeli citizens on holiday. Only hours later, two Jews were attacked and beaten in Paris as they left a suburban synagogue.

In fact, following from another public slaying of three Jewish children and a Rabbi in Paris in 2012, more than 1,400 Jews left France to live in Israel in the first three months of this year, now making it probable that 2014 will see the biggest exodus of French Jews to Israel since that country was established in 1948.

The results from France's municipal elections in May seem to prove that getting out of the "land of liberty, fraternity and equality" is a prudent decision for those minorities without that promised equality.

The far right National Front party there has just received it's best ever voter support in municipal elections and actually won the European Parliament elections with 25% of the vote.
Further East the situation is also disturbing.

In the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Jews leaving their local synagogue were handed leaflets from the new pro-Russian military that ordered them to pay a fee and register their property. They were threatened that failure to comply would lead to their assets being confiscated or even deportation.

One resident of the city said that she had never experienced anti-Semitism until she saw the leaflet but it reminded her of when the Nazis occupied the area in 1941. In that part of the world and across wider Europe we know that there has been a long and terrible history of violent "pogroms" against Jewish people.

But it is not just religious bigotry that is increasingly finding it's way into the light.

If you have a dislike of homosexuality then you can be comforted by having entire national governments that share your intolerance. Apart from Russia's new anti-gay "propaganda" laws, in the continent south from here homosexuality has become a criminal offence in Burundi, South Sudan, Uganda and Nigeria.

Even Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott has come up with more than 200 million dollars in new funds in a bid to push his anti-gay attitudes into schools through so-called "emotional and spiritual support" chaplains.

Meanwhile, another survey has discovered that a staggering 43% of Americans would not vote for any presidential candidate who declared them self to be an atheist.

Just as surprising was that 40% would also not cast their vote in favour of a president of who happened to be a Muslim.

Equally, the possibility of a lesbian or gay president of the "free world" would almost certainly be blocked by the 30% of Americans who openly admitted that they would not support their commander in chief being of that sexual orientation.

But where do these attitudes come from?

I think that purely and simply they can be a result of collectively identifying ourselves as different from others. If we are X and they are Y, then oh, that is a relief because now I know who I am.

As George Orwell wrote, this is "the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects," and something that I believe is done instinctively by extremists and others who don't have what is needed to create their own beliefs.

At it's core, this mindset of segregation and separation tips 17th century philosopher René Descartes celebrated phrase "I think, therefore I am" on it's head.



Sunday, June 29, 2014

Video: The 500 year-old voice




 

When French songwriter/musician Luc Arbogast sings it is as if you are listening to a voice from Europe's Middle Ages.

This video is of "Sefardic Song."

 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Interview on ExpatsBlog.com

  



Where are you originally from?
Australia.

In which country and city are you living now?
Spain.

How long have you lived in Spain and how long are you planning to stay?
8 years and planning to stay another 5 years at least [but probably longer.]

Why did you move to Spain and what do you do?
Many reasons, but largely because Europe (especially Spain) has the kind of history, culture and lifestyle that is one of the best in the world. I taught English and History at two international schools here part-time for a few years and also finished my first book, The Remade Parent. Now I'm working on a travel book about Spain while being a columnist and reviewer for Catalonia Today magazine...on top of teaching local adults English in company mainly.

Did you bring family with you?
Yes, my wife and son have always lived with me. I couldn't have it any other way.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Difficult at times. Sometimes it feels like (even after 8 years here) that the transition is still continuing but I'd lived in Japan for 3 years (and England for 2 years) before coming to Spain so it was not so hard.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
No, it wasn't easy and still isn't. I don't socialise much with expats either though.

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
The food and wine is exceptional and the weather is good for most of the year so it is great for outdoor types. Apart from Barcelona, the regions are wonderful if you have the time to visit them. I think Toledo is incredible, as is Granada too, but there are real gems like Asturias or Galicia which are often neglected by visitors.

What do you enjoy most about living in Spain?
The sun, the seafood, the people I work with (usually!) and the family-friendly nature of public life. I love the tranquility of the little town we live in but Barcelona never fails to stimulate the senses and feed my curiosity.

How does the cost of living in Spain compare to home?
Home is here in Spain but compared to Australia food and drink is much cheaper though other costs are often higher.

Unless you have independent wealth or are very lucky (or well-conected) you'll need some savings to live on at times.

What negatives, if any, are there to living in Spain?
Of course there are negatives such as cultural clashes and some people prejudging you but the positives (still) outweigh the negatives for me.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving to Spain, what would it be?
Experience as much of the local culture as you can...as long as it interests you.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
Finances and dealing with the many layers of bureaucracy when you want to do even quite basic things related to housing, business or employment.

When you finally return home, how do you think you'll cope with repatriation?
As I say, home is here, but I'm sure that there would be plenty of reverse culture shock in going back to Australia one day, even just visting there for short periods I've noticed that.

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
  1. Travel widely and see more than just the little area you live in.
  2. Learn to be functional in a relevant local language.
  3. Be prepared to earn less than you probably do already.
  4. Make sure that if you have kids that they have regular social and/or educational opportunities with local children (not just with other expats.)
  5. Try to not rely only on expats for your social life.


Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
It's a blog on social/public issues and cultural life in Catalonia, Spain and wider Europe.

I started it in 2009 and it now brings visitors from all around the world, which is great.

- See more at: http://www.expatsblog.com/articles/1797/australian-expat-living-in-spain-expat-interview-with-brett#sthash.43EHX2eu.dpuf